The Switch indie onslaught continues! This time, Shiftlings: Enhanced Edition, a port/update of the 2015 puzzle-platformer by Rock Pocket, finds its way to Nintendo's great little console. And man, is it very much at home there!
Shiftlings takes place in a cartoon space (Ratchet & Clank style) and centers around a game show hosted by a purple sleaze who can’t stop shilling for Black Hola Cola. However good it might taste, this fizzy beverage seems to have given the protagonists – two alien janitors working constant shifts – a serious case of gas. By trading this gas between their tethered suits, they shift which one is large and heavy, or small and light. Pretty clever, eh? As the player, you must get both of them to various checkpoints in 55 levels, switching between the two as needed to navigate the many obstacles ahead. It’s a smartphone game style of progression, with three cola bottles to collect in each stage, and ten required for each boss - very appropriate for the Switch. There are two ways to play: alone or co-op. I’ll be tackling the former first.
Let’s get this out of the way: this is E10+, but you’d have to be one clever 10-year-old to get far. There were plenty of times when I was stumped, even if I did eventually experiment my shiftlings into a solution. At first, this difficulty comes from grasping the basic mechanics. It can be disorienting to change from one shiftling to the other, while also having the ability to swap their sizes. While you can hold a shoulder trigger to control both at once, there’s no getting around how frequently you’ll be changing seats. An hour or so in, as the puzzles come to the forefront as the primary source of difficulty, Shiftlings really takes liftoff and becomes something thoroughly engaging. Basic principles that seem incidental at first – like the big shiftling being unable to jump, or the small shiftling’s ability to bounce on the big one but only when jumping from a higher surface – become crucial roadblocks and puzzle components later.
Shiftlings is one of those games that gets away with being frustrating by charming the player into a sense of fun. The bright colors and upbeat music surely bolstered my tenacity; if everything was dull and dreary, my play sessions would’ve been shorter. Aside from the pleasant visuals, Shiftlings enjoys a smooth 60fps frame rate, which can actually be toggled to 30 to save on battery life. There’s also an undercurrent of cynicism going on here. Even as the game show host insults you for getting stuck or killed, he's a spot-on parody of overly-corporatized media, and if you get tired of him, he can be muted. And no, I don’t expect the fart humor to make you slap a knee, but when your shiftlings’ tether gets cut and they float away helplessly, you just might. Stages typically have worldbuilding context as well, emphasizing the notion that as your duo goes from checkpoint to checkpoint, they really are doing shift work while the world exploits them. Does that sound dark? Well it is, but it’s pulled off nicely as the story progresses.
I went into Shiftlings genuinely expecting the co-op to blow singleplayer out of the water. It’s a two-character game that, in theory, should feel a lot more seamless with both moving at once. In practice, however, it really boils down to one player coming up with a theory to overcome an obstacle, and then giving the other player directions to carry it out. “Okay now jump here. Alright, get small. Big now. Okay.” That’s the kind of language you can expect to say and hear, depending on who’s figured things out first. This isn’t bad at all, and some people will still prefer it, but it doesn’t strike me as the definitive way to play.
Regardless of how you play it, though, you can go into Shiftlings knowing you’re in for a nice mix of fun, bewilderment, and satisfaction. It feels great to mess with physics and timing to get that cola bottle you swore was simply unobtainable a few hours ago. It’s oddly hilarious when you hit a hazard and burn away in the wind. When you complete any of its ten-minute levels, you can just set your Switch down, do something else, and come right back for more. For me, it just feels right to have this little gem in my Switch library, perhaps because its level length, price point, and progression system mirror the console’s philosophy of bridging the gap between mobile and at-home play. It doesn’t go above and beyond for replay value, but it packs plenty of hours regardless, and will taunt me for years with the prospect of getting the most difficult cola bottles. It wasn’t originally made for the Switch, but Shiftlings has the potential to be a system mainstay.